"Mommy, What's Satan?"

Of all the religious concepts that I've discussed with my 8-year-old daughter, Satan has been one of the toughest — partly because it seems awkward to speak of something so nasty and awful in a matter-of-fact way. But that's precisely what makes it a great addition to "Mommy, What's That?" a new series I launched last week, where you can find simple, straightforward and age-appropriate language to explain religious ideas to children in a non-religious way. So here goes. Satan: The short answer:

Satan is the "bad guy" in the Bible.

The long answer:

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In the Hebrew Bible, God is the hero who wants people to be good, and Satan is the villain who tries to tempt people into being bad. (Think Batman and the Joker.) Some people believe Satan is just a fictional character. Some people believe Satan is a real being who changes forms so he can trick people into doing bad things. (Like the serpent in the Garden of Eden.) Some people think Satan is just a symbol of the "bad" parts of human beings — because no one is perfect, and everyone is bad sometimes. Some people believe Satan is a "fallen" angel who turned against God and now lives in a place called hell. You will sometimes hear people talk about "the devil" — they're talking about Satan.

Help Inoculate Kids Against Meanness

Veruca Salt

I'm working on a chapter about addressing scary religious concepts  with kids — Satan, hell, the 10 plagues, that weird thing Abraham almost did to his son that one time. Basically all the rather menacing stories aimed at making people "be good." Luckily, more and more religious families are viewing these stories as myths and metaphor — which removes their power considerably — but there are still many, many families (and places of worship) who teach these things as history and truth.

Unfortunately, when these concepts come up on the playground, they can lead to awkwardness, confusion, arguments, even bullying.

Anyway, the whole thing made me  want to share with you guys something my daughter and I used to do together. She was 4 and about to enter preschool — a whole new world where I wouldn't always be able to offer my protection. I told her that sometimes kids say and do mean things, and that at some point a kid might say or do something mean to her. (I don't think I used the term "bully" — I think that was a word the schools introduced later.)

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We talked about all the ways kids hurt her feelings. Then I helped her come up with ways to handle these types of situations, and we role played some of them.

Maxine used to love to do this. I'd say things like, "Your hair is too curly" or "I hate your dress" or "I don't want to play with you." After each of these remarks, she would summon the attitude of a snotty teenager, look me dead in the eye and say "I don't care." Then she'd turn around and walk away with a swagger. She loved it.

After a while, we'd reverse roles, and she'd lob insults at me. She loved that even more.

The whole thing was very fun and funny. But it was also really effective. She felt prepared, and I felt confident she could handle herself on the playground.

Now that Maxine is 7, she still considers this her fallback strategy. When her cousin, Jack, was 3 and having some anxiety about entering preschool himself, Maxine didn't hesitate before offering up her own advice.

"If someone is mean to you," she told Jack, " just say, 'I don't care!' and walk away."

On 'Hell' and 'Evil' — and the Uselessness of Both Concepts

Dr.-EvilThere is no stronger theme in story-telling than the struggle between good and evil. And there are few better ways to drive home a point than to invoke hell as a benchmark. Think, for example, of the power behind Huckleberry Finn's words when he said, "All right, then, I'll go to hell." Mark Twain may have been an atheist, but he was a writer first. All things devil-related make exceptional literary, cinematic and poetic devices.

But out here in the real world? Oh, hell no.

When I was a news reporter, I covered hundreds of court cases, many of them criminal felony cases involving some highly depraved human beings. I've seen serial rapists, child molesters and murderers up close. I've looked many of them in the eyes.

And one of the things I've taken from that experience is how utterly goofy and useless these notions of "evil" and "hell" can be.

It's easy to see why these terms originally came about. Thousands of years before mental illness became widely understood as something separate and distinct from the soul or morality, humans needed a way to compartmentalize deeply disturbed people — to explain their behavior and to set them apart from everyone else. Not just for a while, but forever. Calling these individuals "evil" and damning them to "hell" was simply de rigueur.

But we live in a different day. Thanks largely to Sigmund Freud, we know better.

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Evil is no explanation, and hell is no punishment. Most people do disgusting, terrible things for one of two reasons. Either they have mental disturbances in their brains, or because they were taught to do disgusting, terrible things as children. Sometimes, it's both.

[Now, I'm not saying these two explanations account for every "bad" thing people do. Cheating, stealing or lying about whether you took performance-enhancing drugs can come about through any number of channels. I'm talking here about the kinds of crimes for which the death penalty was invented.]

Research shows us that, as adults, we tend to recreate for ourselves what felt familiar to us as small children. If we felt loved, valued, safe, calm, accepted, happy and confident as kids, we are very likely to have those feelings as adults. If we experienced stress, worry, criticism, dissatisfaction, instability, crime, anger, hatred, pain, violence, drug use, alcoholism or sexual abuse as children, we are likely to somehow incorporate these things into our adult lives.

So, you see, the nature of "evil" isn't some scary devil guy. That you were constantly neglected, insulted and abused when you were a child and then went to prison for rape as an adult is not some mysterious, extreme aberration in humanity; it's a natural consequence of terrible modeling.

To me, hell is a necessary threat only when parents fail to meet their obligations as parents.

9780958578349_p0_v1_s260x420When children are brought up in households that make them feel unconditionally loved, valued, important and powerful, then — short of mental problems — they won't need the threat of some scary, awful place to keep them from doing "bad" things. They will do "good" because that's what feels normal to them.

I believe, as cheesy at it sounds, that Anne Frank was right: People really are good at heart. We want to do the "right thing." It's just that we're human beings with different brains and experiences and temperaments. We're never, ever going to agree about what that "right thing" entails.

The best we can do is to show others, and ourselves, a great amount of compassion. Being a human is hard. And it's harder for some than for others.

In a way, the threat of hell — when leveled on anyone in any situation — is the opposite of compassion. It allows us to distance ourselves from those who act in unacceptable ways. It lets us see people as one-dimensional creatures. It simplifies what is too complicated to simplify. It's an easy out, and in the worst possible way.

If other people choose to believe in hell and evil and mortal sin, and to teach their kids these things, I will be compassionate toward them. They are, after all, recreating the familiar. But I strongly disagree with it. Teaching these things isn't necessary to make children "good." And it carries the potential to hurt and scare them. And remember what happens when we make fear a part of a child's life, right? Fear becomes familiar and natural to them, and they, subconsciously, look for ways to invite that emotion into their adult lives.

I know it will be a long way off, but I look forward to a day when "evil" and "hell" are only used as hyperbole, and any notions of their true existence are left to the fiction writers.